Sweethearts (play)

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Scene from the original production - Act I Sweethearts1874scene.jpg
Scene from the original production – Act I

Sweethearts is a comic play billed as a "dramatic contrast" in two acts by W. S. Gilbert. The play tells a sentimental and ironic story of the differing recollections of a man and a woman about their last meeting together before being separated and reunited after 30 years.

W. S. Gilbert English librettist of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas continue to be frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.


It was first produced on 7 November 1874 at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in London, running for 132 performances until 13 April 1875. It enjoyed many revivals, thereafter, into the 1920s. The first professional production of Sweethearts in Britain in recent memory was given in 2007 at the Finborough Theatre in London, along with Arthur Sullivan's The Zoo . [1]

Scala Theatre former theatre in London, England

The Scala Theatre was a theatre in Charlotte Street, London, off Tottenham Court Road. The first theatre on the site opened in 1772, and the theatre was demolished in 1969, after being destroyed by fire. From 1865 to 1882, the theatre was known as the Prince of Wales's Theatre.

Finborough Theatre theatre in the West Brompton area of London, UK

The Finborough Theatre is a fifty-seat theatre in the West Brompton area of London under artistic directorship of Neil McPherson. The theatre presents new British writing, as well as UK and world premieres of new plays primarily from the English speaking world including North America, Canada, Ireland, and Scotland including work in the Scots language. The venue also presents music theatre, and rarely seen rediscovered 19th and 20th century plays.

Arthur Sullivan English composer of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan MVO was an English composer. He is best known for 14 operatic collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. His works include 24 operas, 11 major orchestral works, ten choral works and oratorios, two ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous church pieces, songs, and piano and chamber pieces. His hymns and songs include "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "The Lost Chord".


David Henry Friston's illustration in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of the original production - Act II Sweethearts - W. S. Gilbert.png
David Henry Friston's illustration in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of the original production – Act II

This romantic comedy of manners was written for Squire Bancroft and his wife Marie (née Wilton), managers of the Prince of Wales's Theatre, and starred Mrs. Bancroft. Gilbert wanted his friend John Hare to play the male lead, to take advantage of Hare's naturally boyish appearance and of his talent for impersonating elderly men, contrasting the character in youth in the first act and old age in the second. In rehearsal, however, Hare struggled with playing the young romantic lead, and the Bancrofts were not satisfied with him, and so another company member, Charles Coghlan, played the role. [2] The Bancrofts had produced the best plays of Tom Robertson in the 1860s, and Sweethearts was Gilbert's tribute to Robertson's "realist" style. The importance of small incidents is emphasised, characters are revealed through "small talk," and what is left unsaid in the script are as important to the play as what is said in the dialogue. These are all Robertson trademarks, though they are not key features of Gilbert's other plays. However, the play combines sentiment with a typically Gilbertian sense of irony. The story of the play deals with themes such as the differences between men's and women's recollections of romantic episodes, and the spread of housing developments to greenfield land.

The comedy of manners, also called anti sentimental comedy, is a form of comedy that satirizes the manners and affectations of contemporary society and questions societal standards. Social class stereotypes are often represented through stock characters such as the miles gloriosus in ancient Greek comedy or the fop and rake of English Restoration comedy, which is sometimes used as a synonym for "comedy of manners". A comedy of manners often sacrifices the plot, which usually centers on some scandal, to witty dialogue and sharp social commentary. Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which satirized the Victorian morality of the time, is one of the best-known plays of this genre.

Squire Bancroft English actor-manager

Sir Squire Bancroft, born Squire White Butterfield, was an English actor-manager. He and his wife Effie Bancroft are considered to have instigated a new form of drama known as 'drawing-room comedy' or 'cup and saucer drama', owing to the realism of their stage sets.

Effie Bancroft actor-manager

Marie Effie Wilton, Lady Bancroft (1839–1921) was an English actress and theatre manager. She appeared onstage as Marie Wilton until after her marriage in December 1867 to Squire Bancroft, when she adopted his last name. Bancroft and her husband were important in the development of Victorian era theatre through their presentation of innovative plays at the London theatres that they managed, first the Prince of Wales's Theatre and later the Haymarket Theatre.

The initial production of the play ran for 132 performances until 13 April 1875. [3] The Times was much impressed with Mrs. Bancroft and the little play, commenting, "the subtlest of mental conflicts and the most delicate nuances of emotion are expressed in graceful dialogue.... That the piece is thoroughly successful, and that it will be much talked about as one of the theatrical curiosities of the day, there can be no doubt". [4] Coghlan received generally good notices, though one critic commented that he "could not fail to suggest to playgoers what a star the management has lost in Mr. Hare". [5] Squire Bancroft called Sweethearts "one of the most charming and successful plays we ever produced." Thereafter, it enjoyed many revivals and was toured extensively by the Bancrofts and the Kendals. [2] The play continued to be produced until at least the 1920s. [6]

Early in his career, Gilbert experimented with his dramatic style. After a number of broad comedies, farces and burlesques, he wrote a series of short comic operas for the German-Reeds at the Gallery of Illustration. At the same time, he created several 'fairy comedies' at the Haymarket Theatre, including The Palace of Truth (1870) and Pygmalion and Galatea (1871). [7] These works, as well as another series of plays that included The Wicked World (1873), Sweethearts, Charity (1874), and Broken Hearts (1875), established that Gilbert's capabilities extended far beyond burlesque, won him artistic credentials, and demonstrated that he was a writer of wide range, as comfortable with human drama as with farcical humour. [2] The success of these plays gave Gilbert a prestige that would be crucial to his later collaboration with as respected a musician as Sullivan.[ citation needed ]

Victorian burlesque theatrical genre

Victorian burlesque, sometimes known as travesty or extravaganza, is a genre of theatrical entertainment that was popular in Victorian England and in the New York theatre of the mid 19th century. It is a form of parody in which a well-known opera or piece of classical theatre or ballet is adapted into a broad comic play, usually a musical play, usually risqué in style, mocking the theatrical and musical conventions and styles of the original work, and often quoting or pastiching text or music from the original work. Victorian burlesque is one of several forms of burlesque.

Comic opera opera genre

Comic opera is a sung dramatic work of a light or comic nature, usually with a happy ending and often including spoken dialogue.

German Reed Entertainments

The German Reed Entertainments were founded in 1855 and operated by Thomas German Reed (1817–1888) together with his wife, Priscilla German Reed (1818–1895). At a time when the theatre in London was seen as a disreputable place, the German Reed family provided family-friendly entertainments for forty years, showing that respectable theatre could be popular.

1886 programme for a U.S. production starring May Fortescue Fortescue-sweethearts.jpg
1886 programme for a U.S. production starring May Fortescue

1874 was a busy year for Gilbert. He illustrated The Piccadilly Annual; supervised a revival of Pygmalion and Galatea ; and, besides Sweethearts, he wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern , a parody of Hamlet ; Charity , a play about the redemption of a fallen woman; a dramatisation of Ought We to Visit Her? (a novel by Annie Edwardes), an adaptation from the French, Committed for Trial, another adaptation from the French called The Blue-Legged Lady, and Topsyturveydom , a comic opera. He also wrote a Bab-illustrated story called "The Story of a Twelfth Cake" for the Graphic Christmas number.[ citation needed ]

<i>Pygmalion and Galatea</i> (play) play written by W. S. Gilbert

Pygmalion and Galatea, an Original Mythological Comedy is a blank verse play by W. S. Gilbert in three acts based on the Pygmalion story. It opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 9 December 1871 and ran for a very successful 184 performances. It was revived many times, including an 1883 production in New York starring Mary Anderson as Galatea, an 1883–84 revival at the Lyceum Theatre, again with Anderson, and an 1888 production at the Lyceum Theatre, with Julia Neilson as Cynisca.

<i>Hamlet</i> tragedy by William Shakespeare

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, often shortened to Hamlet, is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1602. Set in Denmark, the play depicts Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father in order to seize his throne and marry Hamlet's mother.

<i>Charity</i> (play) Drama by W. S. Gilbert

Charity is a drama in four acts by W. S. Gilbert that explores the issue of a woman who had lived with a man as his wife without ever having married. The play analyses and critiques the double standard in the Victorian era concerning the treatment of men and women who had sex outside of marriage, anticipating the "problem plays" of Shaw and Ibsen. It opened on 3 January 1874 at the Haymarket Theatre in London, where Gilbert had previously presented his 'fairy comedies' The Palace of Truth, Pygmalion and Galatea, and The Wicked World. Charity ran for about 61 performances, closing on 14 March 1874, and received tours and revivals thereafter.

A drawing room ballad of the same name was created in 1875 to help advertise the play, based on the story-line of the play, with music by the composer who would go on to become Gilbert's most famous collaborator, Arthur Sullivan. It is one of only three Gilbert and Sullivan songs that were not part of a larger work.[ citation needed ]

Roles and original cast

Note: in Britain, Harry is often an affectionate name for Henry, and Jenny is an affectionate name for Jane.


Act I – 1844

A stiff Victorian youth, "Harry" Spreadbrow, has been suddenly called away to India and must leave immediately. He visits his childhood friend, a delicate if spirited young woman, "Jenny" Northcott, who is busy in her garden. He has long loved her. Harry summons the courage to declare his love propose marriage to her, but Jenny is flirtatious and capricious, and frustrates his every overture, letting him believe that she does not care for him. He asks her to plant a sapling near the window that would remind her of him, and they plant it together, despite her protest that it would eventually block the view. He also asks her to give him a flower to remember her by, and he gives her a flower in return, which she puts to one side without seeming to care about it. At last, dejected, he leaves, but then she bursts into tears.

Act II – 1874

30 years later, Jane, still single, lives in the same house with her nephew, though the garden has grown much in thirty years. Harry, now Sir Henry Spreadbrow, also single, returns; he has just retired from his career and returned from India. When they meet again, the full nature of the irony reveals itself: Jane has remained faithful to him all those years and remembers their last meeting in every detail. But Henry had recovered from his passion for her within the month and has forgotten most of the details of their meeting. The sapling that they had planted together has grown into a large tree, and Henry is astonished that Jane would have such a big tree blocking the view. Jane has kept the flower he gave her, while Henry had long ago lost the flower she gave him. "How like a woman!" says Sir Henry, to throw aside the flower and then keep it for thirty years; "How like a man!" Jane retorts, to swear undying love and then forget almost immediately. Henry makes it clear, however, that their romance is only just beginning.


  1. "About: Sweethearts & The Zoo – A 'Gilbert and Sullivan' Doublebill", OffWestEnd.com, 2007
  2. 1 2 3 Stedman, chapter 8
  3. Moss, Simon. "Sweethearts" at Gilbert & Sullivan: a selling exhibition of memorabilia, c20th.com, accessed 16 November 2009
  4. "Prince of Wales's Theatre", The Times, 9 November 1874
  5. "The Prince of Wales's", The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times , 14 November 1874, p. 315
  6. Crowther, Andrew (24 May 1998). ""Sweethearts" by W. S. Gilbert". The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. Retrieved 23 November 2007.
  7. "Miss Anderson as Galatea", The New-York Times, 1883 January 23 32(9791): 5, col. 3 Amusements Downloaded 15 October 2006.

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